Taking the Stairs: Small Steps Lead to Big Gains for Weight Loss

Making the spaces in between our regular exercise routines count

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Research has shown that High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can be an effective method for burning calories and body fat. When it comes to total caloric expenditure, though, it’s the little things that count. Professor Ormsbee explains.

Man jogging on bridge
A common misperception is that only moderate physical activity, such as jogging, can give you health benefits, but little things like taking the stairs or taking a walk can also help. Photo By sutadimages / Shutterstock

Benefits of Taking the Stairs

In addition to regular exercise, what you do the rest of your day can also play a key role in your body composition. Do you find yourself sitting for hours on end? Small activities, like standing up and walking around during the day, or taking stairs at the office or within a multi-level house, can make a big difference.

A common misperception is that only physical activity or exercise like running, biking, walking, lifting weights, and so forth is needed to get any sort of health benefit. However, just like snacking on the wrong things throughout the day can make you gain weight, small acts of physical activity throughout the day can make you healthier—and even improve body composition.

Very simple things like taking the stairs rather than taking the escalator or elevator can improve your health over the course of time by adding to the total caloric expenditure of the day. This advice is backed by research. Not only does taking the stairs improve leg strength and cardiovascular fitness, but research has also shown that the average person will burn just over one calorie per stair they climb or about 15 calories for every flight of stairs.

This caloric expenditure is based on a 150–160 pound (lbs) person, so a lighter person will burn fewer calories, and a heavier person will burn more. In addition, research has shown that walking down stairs burns about ⅓ the number of calories as climbing upstairs—about five calories per flight descended, making a total of 20 total calories per time you go up and down a flight of stairs.

Incorporating More Daily Activity

Now think about how many stairs you could—or maybe do—climb during a day around the house, around the office, or wherever. Suppose you go up and down three flights of stairs per day on average. 

A total of 20 calories per flight, in a week, and you will burn over 400 calories by simply modifying your daily habits a little bit—and more likely than not you will actually save time taking the stairs. Over the course of a month or a year, these calories add up and can really improve your health and help you improve your body composition—without even working for it. Simple daily habits can consciously be altered to improve your health.

“I go to the American College of Sports Medicine National Conference every year to learn about the research being performed all around the world on exercise, nutrition, and health,” Professor Ormsbee said. “They have a great tagline or motto that exercise is medicine that is being promoted around the world. That being said, it is truly amazing to me that at every one of these conferences people who are capable, still take the elevator or escalator instead of the stairs the majority of the time.”

In fact, according to Professor Ormsbee, he just took a group of exercise science students to South Africa to study sports physiology and sports nutrition—and even they took the escalator or elevator every chance they could. 

“The examples go on and on, but I always get a laugh when people are in the gym parking lot circling and circling trying to find a parking spot close to the door,” Professor Ormsbee said.

Of course, this is not to say that you should never take another escalator or park close to a building, but it illustrates how a choice so small still requires a conscious effort if you want to make a change. Just like something as small as brushing your teeth or flossing, make a daily to-do list at work or at home. If you develop good habits, then they simply become part of your day.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 408 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.